Convention, Context and Constraint


What do singing kittens, Toys “Я” Us and Pepsi Max’s Unbelievable Bus Shelter all have in common? They are all examples of things that challenge what we think we know. Cats don’t like karaoke. “Are” is written “Are” or maybe even “’R’” but not “Я”. And is that really a 200 foot robot invading London?

When our understanding of the world and how it operates is challenged our brains can’t help but try to process this new information and make sense of it. It’s evolutionary and is the reason why our species has survived for thousands of years – why has that fruit turned a different colour? Why does this meat smell different? Who left that animal carcass near my cave?

Psychologists like to call this “schema incongruity”. Marketers like to call it “disruption” or “high involvement processing”. Normal people don’t call it anything; they just do it. Regardless, information that is incongruous to existing schema can be incredibly memorable, and this sort of behaviour in marketing can be a highly effective tool to reinforce, or even change, how a brand is perceived.

The science bit

To make sense of the world our brain connects and packages information and memories – this semantic structure is called a “schema”. A schema serves as a frame of reference that helps form judgments about things (Mandler, 1982), and is an efficient way for our brains to evaluate, store, and recall information (Anderson, 1988). For instance, the word “school”, “tennis”, “chocolate” or “children” will trigger different thoughts, feelings and memories for everyone reading this.

In the context of brands, schemas will be formed by every brand exposure such as packaging, advertising, tone of voice, celebrity endorsement, word of mouth and first-hand usage. Schemas around brands help us remember what a product is good for, how it fits into our life, and why we should buy it. The most memorable brands are likely to be those that evoke the strongest memories and associations (think Virgin, Paddy Power, Red Bull, Channel 4, and McDonald’s) and for each of us these associations will make us more or less likely to consider purchasing that brand. Information or stimulus that corresponds with a person’s existing schema is considered to be “congruent” to that knowledge structure, which in turn can have the effect of adding to or reinforcing that schema.

Challenging our preconceptions

It gets more interesting when we experience things that contradict our view of the world, things that challenge our understanding and make us question our eyes, ears, and knowledge. Just think about someone, or something, that has behaved completely differently to what you would expect and how it disrupted your entire thinking process around that subject. The disappearance of MH370 (how could a plane disappear in today’s age of surveillance?), James Blunt on Twitter (is he quite cool now?), and Old Spice’s new personality (the brand, not the lesser-known 6th member of the band).

This incongruent information is more likely to demand attention (Lynch and Srull, 1982), as are unpredicted, unexpected occurrences (Fiske et al, 1983). As a consequence people tend to be motivated to try to understand and decipher this information which results in deeper cognition, and improved recall (Srull et al 1984). It should therefore be unsurprising that incongruity has the potential to increase interest, memorability and persuasiveness when it comes to advertising.

So what has this relatively niche area of psychology got to do with Out of Home advertising?

I would argue that Out of Home is the perfect medium for brands to employ this strategy of schema incongruity – to behave in ways that challenge customers’ perceptions of your brand or their environment with the result being more memorable, engaging and effective advertising.

Why? COG Research on behalf of the Outdoor Media Centre recently conducted a neuroscience study that found we are 33% more alert when Out of Home than when we are in the home. This alertness ensures we are more aware of potential threats and in turn means that we are more aware of our environment. According to Dr Amanda Ellison of Durham University who participated in the study “our brains and nervous system are working harder when out of home, as they absorb and process more information and stimulus”.

It’s not a leap of faith to say that this heightened alertness means we are also more aware of stimuli that differs from the norm – such as creative, unusual or unique OOH advertising.

In what form could this incongruent advertising exist? Brands have had success when their OOH advertising braves the following:

I hasten to add that congruity in advertising isn’t bad. In his presentation “Sunlight & Seduction” at last year’s Outdoor Works event Tim Spencer of Truth describes schemas (he uses the word “Entanglement”) as a “means of speeding up fame and familiarity”, allowing people to quickly identify branding, presence, intention, and appeal. However it is uncontroversial to maintain that incongruous advertising, especially in OOH, can increase impact, stand-out and memorability.

So when you are working on campaigns that have objectives such as “change perception”, “differentiate from competitors” or “disrupt the market” think about invading robots and remember the phrase “schema incongruity”. Then take any opportunity to challenge Convention, utilise Context or act without Constraint in your OOH to create more impactful and memorable advertising.

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